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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Simply Magical

Mozart’s opera at the Florentine

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The Magic Flute concerns a remarkably innocent little instrument that charms all who listen to it. Its magic leads Tamino through a labyrinth of three trials to determine whether his virtue and purity are worthy to win the hand of his beloved Pamina and to join the secret brotherhood worshipping at the Temple of Nature, Wisdom and Reason under the guardianship of Sarastro, who holds Pamina captive, wishing to release her from the influence of darkness and superstition embodied by her mother, the Queen of the Night.

On route Tamino meets Papagano, a bird-like creature who may not be a worthy candidate for the brotherhood, but who desires only to meet one of his own kind in the form of a Papagena. Papageno also has a flute that serves as a counterpart to Tamino's. Along the way three mysterious ladies try to intercede for the Queen of the Night and three small elf-like boys try to point out the foolishness of human folly. After adhering to the stringent requirements of Sarastro's standards of virtue, beauty and wisdom that determine the quality of love, all can live happily ever after.

This oddly satiric synopsis covers the main events in Mozart's lovely, endearing final opera while unavoidablyhinting at its mysteries. It remains a charming fairy tale containing all the ingredients of childhood wonder-comic dragons to be slain, flutes, glockenspiels, trios of prescient children and lovely ladies spurring the main characters on their quest, along with cryptic goings-on amid secret societies and a mean-spirited Queen whose celebrated coloratura arias have just enough lighthearted foolishness to make us feel she is not all bad. This is a fairy tale at its most tongue in cheek.

Mozart's beautiful score plays for charm, seemingly combing all the elements of his former work but with far greater subtlety and reticence as befits the story's dreamy quality. The snappy merrymaking of Figaro and DonGiovanni are not much in evidence here. A wispy, otherworldlyinnocence disguised as musical simplicity prevails. Tamino'sarias in the first act are tender and languorous, a young man yearning for a lovely romantic image. Even the humorous encounters between Papageno and Papagena are sweet and tender. There is little in the score to suggest the ribaldry of Mozart's great comic operas.

Yet The Magic Flute remains the most tantalizing and elusive of the Mozart operas. The ethereal out-of-reach quality of the libretto and music are usually attributed to its Masonic influence. Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were both Freemasons and the mystery of the secret society permeates the curious reticence and simple charm of the score. Freemasonry extolled science and reason as opposed to superstition. Much of the refreshing innocence of Mozart's music disguises this simple aesthetic in a score rich in understated, sometimes inconspicuous melodies with subtle emotional overtones underscoring Tamino's naiveté in his quest for truth and wisdom and anticipated reward of love. Some of the most beautiful passages are contained in Sarastro's scenes with Pamina. The eerie concluding music announcing the passage of the young people into the sanctity of the Temple of Truth takes on an unexpected solemnity.The destruction of the Queen of the Night is more ceremonial than dramatic as the "darkness" of superstition and ignorance gives way to the purity and wisdom of knowledge and "light."

Mozart was too great apoet not to appreciate the difference between philosophy and art. The mysteries of the Masons have been translated into a musical wonderland wherethe quest for virtue and innocence becomes a self-imposed odyssey of purification invoking the ancient mysteries of Isis and Osiris. Tamino is prompted to follow steps of self-discipline that make himlook inward to liberate the spirit of goodness within his own soul. His journey then, according to Sarastro, must be self-generated. The trials Sarastro imposes are only guidelines designed to discipline his urges and to overcome unfounded fear, not without some help from the gentle, guiding influence of the magic flute.

The beauty of Mozart's score caresses the tale with a gentle hand andappeals to the innocence in each of us. Even the tune of the flute is short and simple. One anticipates a great shattering denouement that never really occurs. There are no visions of hell to overcome. The score retains a fairy tale magic a child can enjoy and will forever tantalize music lovers who seek to reach mysteries that Mozart's slyscore prefers to remain untouched. The story resolves itself with "all creatures great and small" finding their rightful place in a benevolent universe.

The Florentine Opera performs The Magic Flute April 17-19 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.